By: Courtney Dabney
Washington State is divided into 13 official American Viticultural Areas with more than 900 winemakers creating more 90+ vintages than anywhere in the country. As the country’s second largest wine producer, specializing primarily in premium wines and chock-full of charming towns and stunning settings, Washington State makes for the perfect wine-tasting getaway. But such a vast landscape can overwhelm the palate and the planning, so this month we are taste-testing five of the state’s best wine-growing regions.
A 30-minute drive northeast from downtown Seattle is Woodinville, one of the state’s most popular wine regions. Since the 1970s when Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington’s oldest running winery, moved to town, the region has flourished with more than 100 boutique wineries and scores of satellite tasting rooms from Eastern Washington like Walla Walla’s Dusted Valley Wine Gallery and Yakima’s Masset Winery Tasting Room.
While vineyards are scarce here as most of the grapes ship from across the Cascades, this beautiful river valley teems with a small town feel loaded with plenty of production facilities and hardworking vintners like the husband and wife team of Elevation Cellars in the Warehouse District, the Spanish-style wines of Flying Dreams Winery and the slow pace of DeLille Cellars Carriage House tasting room.
Most of Washington’s grapes flourish in the drier climates east of the Cascades. The state’s easternmost region is Walla Walla, an enchanting small town with more than 140 wineries and 2,800 acres of grapes. Stroll the likes of Charles Smith’s rustic wood and concrete tasting room, Mansion Creek Cellars’ intimate setting and more than 30 other tasting rooms in historic downtown Walla Walla before heading east to the amiable Millcreek growing area or south to the estate vineyards and traditional wine country touring near the Oregon border.
Don’t miss Walla Walla’s airport region where tasting rooms like Dunham Cellars reside in old airport hangars and converted WWII-era military buildings. Walla Walla is also home to several large wine festivals including live music and winemaker dinners at the Fall Release Weekend in November and the festive Holiday Barrel Tasting in December.
An hour drive east from Portland, along a stunning 15-mile stretch of the Columbia River in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is Washington’s Columbia Gorge wine-growing region. With more than 30 small wineries and vineyards, this region is one of Washington’s most charming and rustic as well as the most overlooked region. Visit Syncline Winery in the Underwood Mountains, a winery known for its Rhone wines; Memaloose, still regarding “old world” traditions; or venture across the river to Oregon’s Marchesi Vineyards, specializing in Italian varietals grown in the foothills of Mount Hood.
Perhaps the best part of wine touring in the Columbia Gorge is the wealth of outdoor activities like whitewater rafting, salmon fishing, mountain biking and loads of hiking throughout this mountainous landscape.
In the north Cascades, Lake Chelan is one of the state’s newest wine regions. Whether it’s the glacially carved soil, the mild temperatures or just the breathtaking views, the south end of this 50-mile long lake in central Washington has fostered more than 20 wineries all producing a wide array of high-quality wines. Most estate vineyards here come standard with spectacular lake views from patio tasting rooms, so a visit to the husband and wife team at Nefarious Cellars, family-run Chelan Ridge Winery or the Mediterranean-styled Benson Vineyards are all perfect settings for soaking up the natural beauty with an afternoon picnic.
The most family-friendly of all Washington State’s wine regions, Lake Chelan was a summer destination long before it was known for winemaking. While the grownups enjoy live music, championship golf and weekly farmers markets, the kids will appreciate hiking trails, boating and sandy beaches.
Washington’s oldest and largest wine region stretches 70 miles along the Yakima Valley. Here, more than 100 wineries, mostly family-owned boutique producers, cultivate 42 varieties of grapes on 17,000 acres and supply half of the state’s wine production. But in the case of the Yakima, quantity is quality. Quilceda Creek is said to produce Washington’s best cabernet sauvignon, while Andrew Will’s Two Blondes Vineyard grows unmatched merlot, cabernet franc and malbec. Meanwhile, Gilbert Cellar’s Hackett Ranch offers one of the most beautiful and exclusive wine-tasting experiences in the state.
While in the valley, visit Vintner’s Village, a 32-acre site with 10 distinctive wineries joined together by a winding trail. Then peddle the 60-mile bike path through Yakima and peruse the boutiques in the town’s historic Opera House.
In the end, it doesn’t matter which region you choose. When you’re in the mood for a quick wine-tasting weekend or an extended road trip through acres of endless vineyards, forgo the typical California venture and head to the Pacific Northwest. Here, wine isn’t just a way of life; it’s an excuse to kick back and enjoy life.
By: Courtney Dabney